Assigning Blame in the Middle East

Who bombed the Lebanese? After all, it was you and me.


Who is to blame for the bombings and deaths in Lebanon in the past couple of weeks?

Let's consider the suspects:

The Israelis. Certainly, many have taken this position. The first unsophisticated thought that might come to mind when considering who is to blame for a blameworthy action is, those performing the actions. In this case, we have the nation of Israel. Or, to notch it down a level of abstraction, the Israeli army. Or even the specific human beings whose names are not generally reported in the media ordering the attacks, and the even less-likely-to-be-named people actually triggering the bombs and missiles.

States get cut moral slack that individuals never do. No individual would be forgiven for carrying out a private grudge, against even the most evil of people, by blowing up his entire neighborhood—not even after giving 24 hours' warning. Much of the world nods understandingly when such acts are acts of state.

Even hewing doggedly to moral individualism can lead to a defensible argument that every individual Israeli service member causing every individual act of destruction or death is fully justified, regardless of any assumed prerogatives of Israel; Israelis as individuals have their lives and property threatened by Hezbollah actions and likely future Hezbollah actions. By this thinking, if Israel or Israelis are the relevant actors, then "blame" is the wrong word—Israel's actions, death and destruction notwithstanding, are perfectly proper.

Which leads us to number two on the obvious list of suspects:

Hezbollah. Israel's actions did not arise in a vacuum. They were a response to both a specific action of Hezbollah (or specific Hezbollah members—I'll cease spelling out these individual/collective distinctions pedantically, but I think it best not to forget them entirely) and to a pattern of past behavior and likely future behavior of attacking Israeli soldiers and bombing Israeli civilians. The current fighting alone has taken the lives of 40 Israelis.

Samir Franjieh, a Christian member of Lebanon's parliament, expressed this viewpoint clearly (as have more people than I could link to with all the pixels on the Internet), while also limning the moral difficulties with such assignment of blame: "Hezbollah took two Israeli prisoners, and the result now is that 3.5 million Lebanese are being held hostage… It's the political path chosen by the Hezbollah and its allies that led to this situation."

That raises the important moral issue of proportionality. Is Hezbollah's perfidy, past and present, sufficient moral excuse to blame it and not Israel, for 400 Lebanese deaths? Most of us don't treat all violations of a moral code as deserving of any level of retaliation.

If all punishment fits any crime, then the only appropriate role for any of us in this life, to be truly moral, is to spend it brutally killing as many other human beings as we can, since most assuredly we have all committed moral crimes. This becomes especially tricky when failing to act to stop the moral crimes of others is seen as being as blameworthy as committing the act itself.

Jonathan Chait in the Los Angeles Times thinks that all talk of proportionality regarding this conflict is a moral dodge. What is relevant is the sufficiency of means toward the end goal of crushing Hezbollah, not their proportionality to the specific Hezbollah provocation this month. In other words, the end justifies the means when the end in question is stopping a terrorist gang.

Option number three in the blame game:

Everyone else. The rogues' gallery of potentially responsible third parties is long and comprehensive. Let's start big:

* Don't we have a United Nations to help in situations like this? Shame on you, UN! UNIFIL, we hardly knew ye!

* Despite all the initial excitement over the Cedar revolution-turned-fizzle and the departure of actual Syrian troops from Lebanon, President George Bush knows that it's still Syria's fault that Hezbollah hasn't been hobbled.

*But while Bush wonders scatologically why Syria can't contain its satraps, shouldn't he examine the U.S.'s patron relationship to Israel? Blame America First!

* But where has Hezbollah been getting some of the weapons with which it set this tragedy in motion, and continues it with every house hit in Haifa? None other than Iran, which thus wins its fair share of the blame.

* One of the more controversial blamings has been: the Lebanese people themselves. Haven't they, softened to uselessness by all that democracy-whiskey-sexy, dropped the ball on their own responsibility to rid themselves of the viper in their midst? The Cedar Revolution has rotted in short months, Hezbollah has infiltrated normal Lebanese civilian life to the point that there is no way to separate the guilty from the innocent; but then how innocent are the "innocent" who didn't act to beat back Hezbollah, either through politics or arms? This is a country where Hezbollah makes up nearly a fifth of the elected Parliament. It's too late to complain when the bombs drop.

And what are the principles at stake dictating these assignments of blame?

If we start with the assumption that killing people and destroying things is wrong and stop there, we have Israel in our sights. If we complexify it with some uncontroversial utilitarianism—that we are concerned with the long-term greatest good for the greatest number, and some apparent crimes are justified in accomplishing this, as per Chait in his dismissal of proportionality—then we can give Israel a bye, on the presumption that without strong action on its part its enemies in the Arab and Muslim world will continue killing Israeli innocents.

Complexifying that is the empirical observation that no amount of Israeli toughness seems ever get us to where they've successfully killed people to prevent future killing, rather than just laying the groundwork for the next wave of killers. Hezbollah's very existence is a product of Israel's last get-tough-on-terrorists incursion into Lebanon in 1982.

OK, if Israel succeeds in crushing Hezbollah after a few more weeks of bombing and death, 20 years from now (as is likely) we'll have The Avenging Hammer of Allah (or its snazzy Arabic-to-English equivalent). And who will be to blame for its actions? Will it be the fault of the active members of that group, then? Or will any blame accrue to the Israelis acting to destroy Hezbollah now? Indeed, given the history of Israeli/Arab relations dating back decades, might not some of Hezbollah's actions that triggered Israel's reaction this month be Israel's fault for its past actions in Lebanon—which were in Israel's mind of course a just reaction to Palestinian actions, which were in the Palestinians' mind a just response to past Israeli actions…

Which brings us to the moral question of proximity, of both space and time. How long are the crimes of the collective to rain down on its members, and how wide are our obligations to act? Why shouldn't a Lebanese have been allowed to enjoy a latte rather than hang Hezbollah? Unless you believe that it is everyone's moral obligation to expend their life's blood righting all possible wrongs—in which case the blogger who bitches about Hezbollah from Santa Monica is just as culpable as the latte-sipper in Beirut for failing to uproot them from Lebanon—moral obligations to fight evil have some limits based on proximity. We are responsible for our own back yard's evils, but not necessarily the whole world. But maybe not. Indeed, the moral philosophy that seems to animate Bush administration foreign policy comes from that great philosopher Ben Parker, Peter Parker's sainted uncle: "with great power comes great responsibility."

Other big-deal philosophers agree. Peter Unger of NYU has argued that the same moral intuitions or principles that dictate that it is wrong to pass by a drowning child in a pond without attempting to save that child's life also make us morally culpable for not giving everything we have above our own barest sustenance, including what we can cheat and steal out of others, to those who cannot survive without such help. To him, life ought morally to be simply about ensuring others can simply live. His most vivid example has to do with charity, but surely being bombed is as bad for children and other living things as poverty, or a too-deep pond. Could it be that, if we wouldn't pass a drowning child in a pond, we ought not pass up an opportunity to take up arms and blow up some terrorist bastard whose actions might kill a child—or cause Israel to kill a child?

To bring the blame game back home, for those who can blithely excuse either side of this conflict—who think the life of an Israeli civilian is justly forfeit because of the actions of the Israeli state, or that of a Lebanese civilian because of its sort-of state's failure to curb Hezbollah—could you admit, even to your self, in the deepest most secret part of your blog, that any bomb dropped or missile shot by the U.S. government anywhere—Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Japan, Panama, Grenada—could possibly have been the moral equivalent of the ones Hezbollah lobbed at Israel, or Israel at Hezbollah, and suck it up and admit that you are to blame as your home and families are killed when someone decides to retaliate on our territory?

It might be that in a truly just world, we all are getting exactly what we deserve for moral crimes of commission and omission, for letting evils be committed by states in our name, for failing to stop whatever wrongs we could stop, or die trying. And in the face of recent Lebanese events, dithering online about who is to blame might seem morally suspect itself. But moral thinking about blame and responsibility (and attempts at finding such moral arguments that are convincing beyond national, ideological, or religious communities of affinity) is important even when the grim realities make morality seem the most ineffectual of phantasms: There will be many living aggrieved victims, and families of dead ones, of what is happening in Lebanon now.

And while some of them will just try to go on with life as best they can, some of them will want answers, and justice, and vengeance. And in the year 2025, if blogs are still alive, if armchair commenters still thrive, we will find another maddening, conclusionless, muddled discussion of morality and blame regarding a fresh series of bloody attacks and counterattacks in the Middle East.